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    Saturday, May 31, 2008

    The challenges of a long distance relationship

    A misunderstanding this week between *Twinkle* and myself has led me to realise that, after 5 months apart, we've started to lose touch with one another's realities. Whilst we do communicate regularly via email (just over 2,500 messages since we saw one another in January), these cannot give us a true picture of the daily mosaic of each others lives. Skype is all well and good, but the time difference and our busy schedules means that these exchanges are limited in number, and quality, with one or both of us being too exhausted for meaningful conversation.

    This means we are losing the ability to understand one another's feelings and reactions to the everyday occurrences that we do talk about.

    Things have become especially difficult lately as the end of this period apart has suddenly been moved back by between one and four months. This is due to recent conversations with the Japanese authorities, who not only require me to go through a tedious 2-month-plus application process for my visa (whether it be a work visa or spouse visa), but also require that I have between £2000 and £3000 (US$ 4K - 6K) in my bank account for three months. I'm a student at the end of 5 years of higher education, so of course that is money that I don't have - and I don't know anyone who could lend it to me either. Even if I did, we couldn't do the usual temporary transfer to get the required bank statement. It needs to sit there.

    This means that I might even have to stay in the UK until the autumn in order to save up the necessary funds (even if I had a job lined up before I went to Japan I would need funds to keep me going for the first two months). Thinking of how difficult things are between myself and *Twinkle* at the moment, this is an horrific thought. Especially as we'll be newly married in July.

    It's all a bit of a mess really. The only thing I can think to do is try not to worry about these disagreements that have resulted from a lack of understanding of our current situations, and instead focus upon the love and understanding that holds us together at a deeper level. I think it's important that we not let the situation get the better of us. We are good together, and we know it. Just got to stay strong.

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    Thursday, May 29, 2008

    Above the architecture section

    Today, like yesterday, and no doubt tomorrow too, was a good day. I feel some important memories were made.

    It was also a very happy day, as last night my brother's partner's daughter gave birth to a very cute little boy - really great news - congratulations to all involved!

    Congratulations also to dear Michael (from the Waldorf years) and his wife on the birth of their baby. Another real cutey!

    Somewhat less exciting than the birth of some babies was the selling, this morning, of my Claud Butler bike of 17 years. As a child I saved up for it for a long long time, and finally, when I was about 13 years old, it was delivered to school in a big brown box. I was so excited, as were my classmates. I remember having to attach the pedals, and rotate the handlebars 90 degrees. I still have the instruction manual.

    I really loved that bike, but it can't come with me to Japan. It's the beginning of the big clear out. Soon, I'll be giving away the ultimate student kit, including a whole kitchen (rice cooker, food mixer, pans, plates, cutlery, sieves etc), stationary, hanging clothes things, and 4 big springy clip things that have a myriad of uses).

    Any takers? Sheffield or Hereford area OK. £10 donation to wedding fund appreciated.

    This afternoon I had a 90-minute interview for the CELTA English language teaching course. I enjoyed that, and learnt a little about English grammar, something I've never really understood despite using it on a daily basis. I'll hear tomorrow whether I've been accepted.

    It sounds incredibly hardcore; prospective trainees are required to sign a declaration stating that they understand that they will have no life for the duration of the course.

    As one of the instructors told me, "It's incredibly demanding, and not everyone will make it to the end ...but it's fun too". I could tell from her voice that the type of 'fun' that she was referring to was that that can be had by taking part in a team event that sees one walking 100km non-stop over 7 mountains in 31 hours. One of those experiences that at the time is pretty damn painful, but when you do complete it you feel a special bond with the group without whom you would have never made it to the end.

    Following my interview it was back to Western Bank library which is now open until midnight. It's funny, we've not studied in there this year, but just this last week myself and my classmate Jason have migrated back to the exact same spot that a group of us used to study in in our first year, on the mezzanine floor above the architecture section. It feels natural to complete the cycle, to end where we began. We even had Matthew join us from Japan (he left in our second year) - at least by email anyway.

    I really enjoyed 'studying' today - although there was much laughter as I basically spent the first 8 hours re-enacting this video. I finally started to get my 'stuff done' at 7pm - this was made possible by my taking my Macbook home, and returning to the library without it (I was actually very productive during those 8 hours, it's just that none of my activities related to my exam).

    Jason had just received notice from the Embassy that he will be working in Osaka next year (on the JET scheme as an ALT), so in-between revising and talking about Apple's OS 10.5.3 (released today) we chatted about this good news. I'm delighted that he'll be somewhere that's easy to visit, and I reckon he'll love Osaka (he's not been there before, and is happy with his placement). It has two Leica dealerships and an Apple store - what more could one ask for?!

    It was during these conversations that I felt that this was a situation to be truly grateful for, one worth remembering. Sharing stuff with a friend, in a comfortable environment that carried with it a great sense of achievement. University really has been a blessing.

    We finished our revision at about 10.30pm, joking that I was going to then rush home and download the new update for my Macbook, then spend half the night exploring the new features. Thankfully, it's rather a dull update, so I should be able to get a full night's sleep.

    Night night nice world. Thank you for today.

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    Wednesday, May 28, 2008


    Seems like the Internet doesn't like wet weather. It;s been gradually dying as the mist has set in tonight. It happens in Wales too. After a heavy rain shower, one has to disconnect the router from the mains and put it in the tumble drier for a while.

    Skype has been fun. I'd call someone and say 'hello' as soon as they answered, but due to the 10 second delay they'd hang up before they heard my voice.

    It's not the best of timing as I've got my weekly coaching call tonight. Looks like I'll have to skunk off down the road to our rival, Sheffield Hallam University, and see if their connection is any better.

    Condolences to Sophie on not making it through ...but wasn't she fantastic?! I think that with the exposure she's had and the talent she has she'll go a long way.

    It's now 7 days until the exam. I've started off revising the easiest of the three sections (newspapers). I'm happy with my progress, but am aware that I need to face my fear of the writing section. Tomorrow.

    Speaking of tomorrow; as well as selling my bike in the morning, I have an interview tomorrow for the 4-week intensiveCELTA (Tefl) course after lunch. I tell you, it looks blooming tough. 9.30am to 6.30pm daily, plus a minimum of 20 hours preparation / homework per week. Five assignments too.

    Things are slowly progressing on the job front. I'll be sent a pre-interview assignment to complete for a Tokyo-based English school next week - but I've also been put in touch with someone who teaches in a university where apparently there may be an opening. If I were to get that job I'd be living in Kansai (3 hours west of Tokyo on the bullet train), and thus *Twinkle* and I would spend about ten days a month apart when she goes to Tokyo on business. Not ideal. If I wasn't needing a visa I wouldn't be having these problems. I need to call the Japanese embassy about the spouse visa option again. It's finance that's the problem there (need to show a regular income, not ideal if self-employed as *Twinkle* is).

    The British Embassy in Tokyo called *Twinkle* today. She's applied for a 'visitors visa (marriage)' - they want proof of our relationship. My response has been to post about 60 photos dating back to 2005 of us being a couple in a special web album. I've suggested *Twinkle* send them the link and the username / login I provided. They may say they want to see printed copies (because printed photos are more real than digital copies of the same photos?!)

    I'm enjoying working in the library these days, but it is all a bit surreal. Kind of no-mans land, with routine gone, and the course over, but not over. It feels pretty weird.

    Anyway, I'd best get down to the office.


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    Sunday, May 25, 2008

    Speaking from the heart

    Following a day spent washing socks and working on my final piece of coursework, this evening I was picked up by friends on their way to another friend's birthday BBQ. It was great to see the James the birthday boy, even if our stay was somewhat brief. I was also delighted to bump into Lynne, my ex-classmate who I've not seen since the second year of our course (that was a big surprise!). I was torn between staying, and going to the house of another couple of friends, the daughter of one of whom was appearing on ITV's Britain's Got Talent.

    In the end, I decided to head over to support Sophie, and I tell you, it was truly inspiring, not only seeing Sophie impress Simon Cowell, but also watching all those 'ordinary people' realising their long-held dreams. I was struck by how 'nice' they were. Their attitudes of humility and appreciation. Big Respect!

    Reading my Team Management Profile the other day, there was one bit that I didn't identify with at first.
    "You have your best ideas when in conversation"

    Since reading that, I've been enjoying observing myself in conversation (partly as that's one of the assignments for the coaching course I'm taking), and you know what, it really is when talking to others that my ideas come together.

    When asked tonight what I'll be doing in Japan, I talked a bit about the jobs I'm thinking of taking on in the first year. It struck me how when explaining why they would be right for me, I felt no passion. I was describing some mechanism for earning enough money to cover my expenses. I felt like a fraud, I was just talking rubbish.

    Realising this, I switched from head to heart mode, and spoke again. I talked about how I love engaging groups of people, making them feel relaxed, causing them to laugh, teaching them something that would help them leave the room feeling just a little happier than when they'd walked in.

    A medium-term goal then: to work with large groups of people, some form of public speaking. It could be on broadcast media, it could be in the flesh.

    From here I worked backwards, seeing where the jobs I'm thinking of taking on could contribute to my reaching this goal. These jobs include teaching & training - both of which involve the presentation of ideas, the use of logical linkages and story telling. All of these skills would come in handy for public speaking. Seen in this light the jobs have a higher purpose, and are a good deal more appealing. And, just as importantly, my focus is back on my ultimate goal, which is leveraging my 'brand' (which could be a penguin called Pepé) to have a significant positive impact upon a lot of people.

    This inspires me, excites me and gives me the energy to do what needs to be done.

    Anyway, best be off to bed.

    (That audition led to this)


    Sophie Mei in the semi-final of Britain's Got Talent

    Shout out to all those TV owners resident in the UK:

    On Monday night at 9pm on ITV1, Sophie Mei, daughter of a good friend of mine here in Sheffield, will be one of 8 performers in the first live semi-final of Britain's Got Talent.

    She's made it through to the final 40 - out of 100,000 hopefuls.

    Selection for the final is based on audience votes you know what to do!

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    Friday, May 23, 2008

    We Did It! Graduation Ceremony (No.1)

    Our teachers will not be able to come to our graduation ceremony at the end of July as they will be in Japan. Not wanting to miss out on such an important occasion, they decided that in our last ever lesson with them, they put on a special Japanese graduation ceremony for us.

    This act of kindness really sums up just how caring these teachers are.

    Highslide JS
    We are the Champions! Out of over 45 people who started this course 4 years ago, we are the 16 that made it to the end. WE ROCK! (Check out my teeth-grin. I'm not sure what I was thinking...)

    It was lovely. We sang, we gave mini-speeches, we received graduation certificates. We received words of advice for our future lives. There was laughter, and tears.

    Highslide JS
    Receiving my graduation certificate

    What made it even more memorable was a special guest via streaming webcam from Japan- TANAKA SENSEI! Tanaka sensei was much loved by all of us in our first two years, but had to return to Japan a couple of years ago. He'd not used Skype before, but we managed to get through just at the start of class. It was so exciting, such a great surprise!

    Highslide JS
    Skyping with Tanaka Sensei

    Seeing him, and his wife (who also taught us for a time) was a real treat. I think our teachers were just as excited to have the opportunity to see and speak with him, having not seen him since last year.

    Highslide JS
    Our teachers having enormous fun talking with their ex-colleague Tanaka sensei, much missed by both students and staff

    There's more photos of our ceremony on Facebook.

    We have one more class left on this course, tomorrow afternoon. Then that's it. Just the exam.

    I can't quite get my head round the idea that we've finished, and that we're all going our separate ways. I've not really thought about it. Until now. I'm not so sad about leaving the teachers, because I know that I'll continue to keep in touch with them, and see them when they come to Japan or I visit Sheffield. I'll probably spend much of my summer in Sheffield in any case, so it really is a while until that goodbye.

    But with my classmates, it's different. The chances are that I won't see some of them again, and that really upsets me; I can't help but shed a few tears thinking about that. They've been such a huge support over the past few years. Whilst I don't often socialise with them, they mean an awful lot to me. It's been so difficult at times, but together we got there.

    In our little graduation speeches, quite a few of us mentioned the importance of our friendships. Another recurring theme was that of persevering, of battling on through the tough times. By doing so, you can conquer the most difficult of challenges.

    The photo above of all (but one) of us carries with it enormous meaning, and is one that I shall really treasure.

    We've really done something incredible here. Well done us.

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    Wednesday, May 21, 2008

    SeeChange Residential Event: Day 2

    It's been a long day today. I was going to get up early, but when the alarm went off at 6am I thought "stuff it", took the battery out and went back to sleep.

    The program started at 9am, with a plenary analysing the current situation. It was such a long time ago I can't even remember what we did... It was about an hour later that things got started for us, with our team of 8 retiring to our Project Room, where we set about attempting to fill in the Theory of Change (TOC).

    What is Theory of Change and why should I care?

    A Theory of Change is an innovative tool to design and evaluate social change initiatives. By creating a blueprint of the building blocks required to achieve a social change initiative’s long-term goal, such as improving a neighborhood’s literacy levels or academic achievement, a Theory of Change offers a clear roadmap to achieve your results identifying the preconditions, pathways and interventions necessary for an initiative’s success.

    I was vaguely aware of TOCs (see pdf example here) through my work at CILASS, but had never taken part in producing one.

    It was a useful tool, providing us with a framework within which we could freely discuss various aspects of our project. We may go off down a rathole for a bit, but knowing that we could then return to the TOC removed the fear of becoming lost in the myriad of ideas that were floating around.

    With our team being made up of staff from central support services, academics, and students (the other student having come all the way from Macedonia to join us) the discussion was incredibly rich. As I sat there listening to and partaking in our journey through the vast plain of ideas, I couldn't help but think, "This is how BIg Decisions are made!".

    It was fascinating to observe the ebb and flow of energy in the room. Some people were quiet, but would suddenly come out with something that was vitally important. You knew you should listen to them because they'd clearly thought about it quite a bit. Others would be full of ideas, and you could sense their passion. It was also interesting when someone said something that someone else could not agree with. The issue would be dropped, but you'd know it was there, under the table, and sure enough half-an-hour later it would re-emerge, along with a resolution.

    Thinking on the day's events now, I'm struck by how much of this goes on in our everyday lives. We are negotiating and bouncing ideas around in this manner on a daily basis; it's just diluted by life and we don't realise what complex interactions we are actually engaging in. I think it's amazing.

    ...It's also pretty exhausting when done in a such a concentrated manner - I'm shattered! I won't be going to bed until after 1am though as from midnight I have my weekly coaching call. Let's hope this dodgy Internet connection doesn't give up half way through. For some bizarre reason all the traffic from this hotel goes via Germany. Clearly, the hotel management is unaware that the UK too does actually have ISPs.

    Anyhow, it's back to Sheffield tomorrow lunchtime for my final writing class, and then some serious revision. Thursday will be pretty full on with a lecture in the morning followed by a training in Adobe Dreamweaver for the CILASS Ambassador taking over my job, then our Japanese graduation ceremony! Our Japanese language tutors are unable to attend our real graduation in July, and thus we are using our final class for a special recreation of a Japanese ceremony. Isn't that a great idea? They are so sweet. Thursday night I'm taking part in some event - looking after guests or something, I have no idea what it is really - then on Friday it's Japan Day where I'll be taking photos of people in Kimono all day. That's also the day of our last ever class. Gulp.

    At the weekend my japanese language teacher from Bristol uni and a classmate are coming to visit, so I think I'll have to save breathing for Monday.

    Anyway, must be off.

    Tarra xxx

    Team management profile - my report

    A couple of weeks prior to coming on this 'Change event' I, and all other participants, were sent a (60 question) questionnaire to fill in order that a "Team Management Profile" could be drawn up. A TMP is essentially a 25 page report on you, showing your preferred roles within a team, detailing your strengths and weaknesses, providing areas for self-assessment (improvement), and giving pointers for others that wish to interact with you effectively.

    I was pretty cynical when answering the questions, but having received my report I'm stunned. It is incredibly accurate - almost scarily so. I'm an explorer / promoter. I like challenges, constantly seek new projects, have a high energy level and am outgoing.

    It goes on to talk about how,
    "whilst you enjoy other people's views,"it is likely that you will have clear ideals, standards and convictions which guide your decision-making. You rely on your 'sixth sense' to tell you what is right."

    "Your gift for expression is particularly forceful when you are proposing a line of action based on your personal values. Indeed, some may say you don't always support your ideas and beliefs with sufficient facts and hard evidence."

    I think that latter point is demonstrated time and time again here, in the Mumble, when I blog about something that I feel passionate about, even when I lack any evidence to back up the argument behind my feelings. I've been aware of that for some time now, and I think it's a 'lack of time' for carrying out sufficient research that has come to make me hesitate to mumble as much as I may have done beforehand about immediate issues, out of concern to not be talking complete crap.

    There's another warning for me a little later on in the report.

    "You probably feel you involve people a lot in the decision-making process because you talk to them a great deal. You may wish to check up to see if they really do feel involved, in the sense that they can influence you as opposed to their being influenced by you. The more experienced you are, the better you will be able to handle this important balance."

    I tell you, I feel like the author of this report has been stalking me. I recognise that danger in the way I interact with people, and although it is something I do try to counter by asking for sincere opinions, I know that that I find it difficult to not put across my feelings that are often founded on passion and core beliefs.

    "You value harmony and co-operation, but can be a strong opponent if crossed" - I think the university's parking services could vouch for that!

    What makes everyone laugh is looking at the Norm data - where you are compared to global norms.

    Out of a sample of 151,616 people:

    - 91% are more introverted than me
    - 75% are more practical than me (I am more creative, apparently)
    - 86% are more analytical than me (I'm belief's orientated - a look at any of my story-tale essays will back that up!)
    - 84% are more flexible than me (rubbish!)

    I would take issue with that final one. It must have been the wording of the questions that skewed the answer!

    Whilst it is of course by no means foolproof, this TMP does seem to pick up on core behaviours and beliefs. I'd recommend anyone who has the opportunity to do it, to do it.

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    Tuesday, May 20, 2008

    SeeChange Residential Event: Day 1

    It's been a fascinating day today.

    Following that early morning jog, I slowly got my stuff together and headed over to the Computing Centre, where I was to met a couple of university 'colleagues' for the 50-minute drive down here, the Derbyshire Hotel, from where I'm now staying for a couple of nights (all expenses paid. Thank you Sheffield!).

    This three day residential event is the product of the university's investment in change. The idea was spawned at a national "change" event attended by a couple of senior members of staff, who then thought "Wow! What a great idea! Let's have our own 'Change' process at Sheffield ...and let's call it SeeChange!" The call then went out for project proposals, one of which was drawn up by Patrice of Learning and Teaching Support, and Mark of CiCS/CILASS fame.

    The goal of our project is to formulate a strategy that will see students utilising Web 2.0 tools to positively impact upon their learning process. This might include tools such as Facebook, RSS feeds & newsreaders, Flickr, YouTube and social bookmarking. It's not going to be easy. The use of Facebook by university staff is the topic of some debate and has cropped up several in CILASS debates; the current consensus seems to be something along the lines of 'stay away'.

    What is key to our project is that it is student driven. If the university was to 'hijack' these popular services, the response would most likely be students choosing to go elsewhere. It's a difficult situation: A university driven initiative that cannot be university driven!

    I'll describe some of the tools we've been given to aid us in our change process tomorrow.

    I feel very fortunate to be involved in what really is an exciting project. And it's not just the project itself, it's the way it's being launched. The four teams that are here (making up a total of about 30 people) were selected following a competitive tendering process - thus we already feel quite special, it's like winning a holiday (although the hotel's not all that nice, and the Internet access deal is the biggest rip-off in the history of the galaxy. Having said that, I love staying in hotels and am very grateful for what we have been provided with. I'll be going for a Sauna when I wake up tomorrow...). The reason it's a three day residential held outside of Sheffield is, according to one of the organisers, to stop people nipping back to the office at lunchtime - we have to be fully focused. And I think it does help the creative process.

    I'm also very appreciative to be able to partake in the training sessions that are being provided as a part of the package, the kind of things you'd pay good money to take part in privately. I'll talk more tomorrow about the Team Management Profile, a 'test' that leads to a personalised 25-page report on your contribution to a team. They are scarily accurate and offer invaluable insights into one's own character.

    It's fascinating attending this event in the role of 'student', surrounded by staff. Whilst I may be 30 years old, I often feel more like I'm a teenager, and am prone to elevate staff above myself in the university environment. But seeing them work together here, it strikes me just how much they resemble my classmates and I as we carry out some group project. This leads me to think on how difficult I find it to take on the mantle of 'adult', and I wonder if this is a consequence of being labelled as a 'student'. How will my sense of identity change when I begin work?

    I digress.

    I'd better get to bed really, it's late. We have a full schedule tomorrow. Looking forward to it.

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    Monday, May 19, 2008

    Monday 5am

    Highslide JS
    Signs of Spring

    Yesterday at 4am myself, and 34 others who live in my block at Broad Lane Court, were rudely awoken by the ringing of bells. Doorbells.

    It was a little alarming, as our doorbells are quite loud; we can hear the neighbours' bells almost as clearly as our own. All of them were going off together. After a few moments of lying there feeling semi-consciously confused, I managed to rouse myself - someone might be in trouble, desperate for attention. I stumbled down the stairs to the main door, and was soon joined by several flatmates in similarly dazed states. The bells had stopped ringing by now.

    I looked out through the glass panels of the door, but all I saw a man strolling nonchalantly out of the courtyard. He did have the gait of a drunkard - it just seemed that he'd had a sudden urge to wake lots of people up. Which he successfully did.

    Things like that don't really annoy me. I tend to just put them to one side and know that I'll understand that I'll probably appreciate why it happened at some later date. As it was, I was asleep again within seconds of returning to bed, so wasn't really inconvenienced.

    Thinking over this later in the day, it struck me how light it had been at 4am.

    Living in a thick-walled block of flats with only a small double-glazed window out onto the world, it's only too easy to become insulated from the natural cycle of the seasons. This, I feel, is a great shame. We've lived according to the rhythm of the seasons for millions of years. It's a fundamental cycle that I'm sure affects us as it affects the animals and plants.

    Thinking about this, I realised that perhaps I had something to learn from the 4am bell-ringer. And that's why I could be found in the part at 5am today, doing my exercises.

    I tell you, that 7am-Sunday-in-the-park thing - you can experience it weekdays too, at 5am! It was just beautiful. So peaceful. The sun was a fair way above the horizon, its lovely golden rays reflecting off a million little mirrors created by frost-coated blades of grass. Hitting the trees that surround the football pitch it made them seem like huge huggable cushions of green (although I admit they would probably not feel like cushions if fallen on from a considerable height).

    So, a big thank you to the man who rang all of our doorbells at 4am, for re-connecting me with the rhythm of the world the other side of my double glazing.

    Today promises to be an exciting day. At 8.30am I'll be meeting a few staff from various university departments, and we'll be heading off to a 3-day residential event near Nottingham, the aim of which is to get an exciting new project off the ground that seeks to utilise Web 2.0 tools in the enhancement of learning and teaching. I'll not be able to stay for the whole day today as what with this being week 12 (the final week of taught lectures) I have my last ever class with Nagai sensei (sniff). There's also a little awards ceremony to attend for the photo competition.

    Anyway, best get on and eat my porridge. Lots to do before the rest of the world wakes up!


    p.s. for someone who is a lot more in touch with natural cycles (pun intended), check out I've mentioned this blog before. It tells the story of a couple who left the pressures of Tokyo city, to start life anew in the countryside. 

    It's not just beautiful photography. I found the recent post "Lost in the countryside" very interesting. For me, it's a reminder that whilst the grass may be greener on the other side, it does require a lot of care.

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    Friday, May 16, 2008

    Going for it

    Highslide JS
    About to press the magic lever (Starring Susie, and featuring my arm)

    Here we are then: the moment when I reached out and pushed the magic leaver that saw the my dissertation bound. Job done!

    Looking back on these past few days of hardcore writing I'm inspired. I got so much done - now how about if I turn that energy and single-mindedness to my language revision, just for two weeks? I feel pretty unconfident about the exam at the moment, but having seen what I've just done, I appreciate that I could turn the situation around.

    I think it's definitely worth a go.

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    Dissertation Done and Dusted

    Yay! I am Happy. Very happy (and very tired!).

    It's been a 14 hour day in the library, but we got there. I'm pretty pleased with it as I've been able to keep my 3000 word history - well, at least for the version that I'll have bound for myself. The department will get the 8,200 word abridged version!

    Caw blimey it's over. Only one translation and a three hour exam between me and graduation.

    Thanks so much to mum and dad who have put in a lot of time to proofread it over the past few days. Much appreciated.And thanks to my supervisors too, couldn't have done it without you :-)

    Bed time for me now. I actually have a DAY OFF tomorrow!


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    Thursday, May 15, 2008

    Dissertation: The benefits of procrastination

    I was in the library just after 9am this morning; it's now 1.45am, and I got home 15 minutes ago. A 16.5 hour day, not bad. It was punctuated by an hour spent with my classmates, first year and second students on our course, in a meeting about the Year Abroad. That was fun. It was also really nice to see so many of us Japanese studies students together, you know, like one big family. Even making it through the first year is quite an accomplishment - so in a way we were all survivors.

    I think Angela (joint head of Japanese language) does a fantastic job in co-ordinating our year abroad placements. It's one of those things you take for granted, but she must put in an awful lot of work to make it all happen. Thanks Angela.

    ...But anyway, apart from that interlude I was in the library, or the basement of the Arts Tower, working on my dissertation. It's nearly done. I just have to check over my referencing and insert a Table of Contents, then that's it.

    Unfortunately there isn't really all that much of a sense of achievement. The reason for this is that originally, it was what I felt was a pretty good study of Japan's NGO sector. That was when it was 13,000 words long. But the limit, imposed on the department by the powers that be (who require uniformity across the faculty), is 7,700 (that's including the 10% leeway), which means I have basically had to hack it to bits. What I'm left with is a footnote-heavy scribble, jam-packed with only the essential information, and lacking in context - I feel it's rather a dull read.

    I tried to get it down to the prescribed length, but it won't go. Thus, I'll have 2% knocked off my final mark for exceeding the word count, but I'd lose more if I tried to cut anything else out, and in a way I think its important to lose the marks - a vain attempt to make a point - you can't really write a 'dissertation' with multiple chapters etc in 7,700 words. Extended essay yes, dissertation no. How about we are told "Between 7,000 and 10,000". That would make more sense.

    Perhaps I should just treat it as an exercise in being Concise.

    But anyway, it's not really about the final mark, it's about the process, right? No, seriously, it is, and despite the stress and writer's block, it's been a really good module, and I'm glad that we're required to do it. I'm also very grateful for the support I've received from my tutors, who saved me from a couple of nervous breakdowns.

    And yeah, this procrastination thing: In a bid to avoid this dissertation, I have been very busy over the past few months getting all sorts of things done that would otherwise have gone undone. And now, with so much work to do on the piece and so little time to do it in, I'm forced to be highly productive for hours on end (like today). So, the overall effect is high productivity, high productivity. Win Win.

    Must do this productive procrastination thing more often.

    Anyway, best get off to bed. I have a team bonding session at 10am for an exciting new project I'm involved with at uni aiming to bring Web 2.0 tools into the learning process. I'm guessing it will mainly involve hugging and things, which is nice for a Thursday morning.

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    Wednesday, May 14, 2008

    Transformations in nature

    A bland picture taken in the park on my way to Beanies. But there's a point to it.

    Isn't nature incredible? The way it does things with colour...

    And how quickly it changes. I just can't stop looking at the trees everytime I leave the house. That churchyard has gone from infancy to maturity in the space of a week.

    The trees must be so happy to feel the sun. You can really feel they're alive the way they've reacted to the change in the weather.

    Amazing stuff.

    And the lengthening of the days too. I know it's supposed to happen, but I still can't help but feel it's pretty incredible that it's still perfectly light at 9pm.



    Yipppeeeee! I just won a university photo competition, my prize being a £200 digital camera! I've missed having a small point-and-shoot as I gave mine to mum and dad at New Year so they could play with digital photos with their new Macbook. Unfortunately though, the one I gave them was a Japanese language model. You can imagine how they have struggled, technology not being their strong points as it is! Thus, I can give them this brand new English camera, and they can take great photos of the family to send to me when I'm in Japan - Hurrah!

    I also won £30 in music vouchers for another couple of photos which won different categories - one of a rainbow over Sheffield, taken from the Arts Tower, and another of the Japan Soc Soran Bushi dancers performing in front of the Union.

    I'm also honoured and humbled to have have been nominated twice for the Chancellor's Medal. I'm not sure what to say about that, but thank you so much to the people who nominated me. I couldn't have done what I've done without your inspiration and enthusiasm. Thank you.

    To top it off, I've just had word from the library that the two library books I desperately need for my dissertation have come in. Yippeeeee!

    OH OH OH and Bjork just emailed! She's coming back to play for us on the 2nd July! Yippppppppeeee (again)!

    Off to the Society Awards now - Japan soc entered for 'Best National Society' - and we've been shortlisted!

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    Monday, May 12, 2008

    Japan: Exchanging a Tourist Visa for a Spouse Visa

    Remember that time I was going to the immigration office in Tokyo on a weekly basis to try and get my visa status sorted? It lasted quite a while, and featured lots of vagueness.

    This morning I phoned the immigration bureau in Tokyo. They have an English homepage which advertises their helpline - operators can speak all number of languages including English, Chinese, Korea, French etc.

    The lady answered in Japanese. I told her that I had a query about obtaining a spouse visa - could I please talk with someone who spoke English in the visa department.

    "I'm sorry, we don't have anyone who speaks English in this office..."

    I was put through to (if I'm not mistaken) Mr. Tanaka, winner of the Gold Medal for Fast Talking (Japanese Category) in the 1984 Olympics. I asked my question, with him saying "hai" (yes) three times a second.

    "Is it possible for me to enter Japan on a tourist visa and then exchange that for a spouse visa after arrival?"

    As soon as I had reached my full stop, he rattled off the most astonishing volley of high-speed sentences you've every heard. I tried hard not to laugh.

    Still, I did manage to catch the overall meaning. Basically, legally it is possible, but he couldn't say for sure one way or the other whether it would be granted.

    Thanks, goodbye.

    I then mailed *Twinkle* with the phone number, could she give it a go? She did, and a few minutes later got back to me.

    "They said that it's not illegal, but they can't say one way or the other whether it would be allowed in this situation".

    I see a pattern forming.

    Next stop was the Japanese Embassy in the UK. I've never been too keen on contacting them as they tend to be very formal and never really tell you any more than what''s written on the homepage. But today, something magical happened. I was put through to the nicest, most helpful and human member of embassy staff you could ever hope to meet. He didn't fob me off with official responses, but explained what the reality of the situation was. He then offered me his personal email address and direct line. I started to wonder whether I really had called the Japanese embassy...

    The situation is basically this: it depends entirely on the immigration officials on duty at the time that I land at Narita airport, and those officials on duty when I go to the Immigration department in Tokyo. It depends on whether they choose to ask me questions, and if they do, what those questions are. The thing is, if I was to say that the purpose of my visit was to be with my Japanese wife (as she will be by then) they can refuse me entry on a tourist visa. The other option is that I lie, and say that I'm going for a short visit. However, when I get to the immigration department they could then ask what I had given as my reason for coming to Japan, and if they see a discrepancy they could refuse my application for a Spouse visa, and ask me to leave.

    I was told that it's likely that I'd get away with it, but that it was a risk, and therefore the embassy could not recommend I try.

    Any thoughts?

    So, if I wasn't to do the tourist > spouse visa thing, I would be left with two options:

    1) find a job before going to Japan and enter on a work visa (an employer is needed to act as a sponsor in order to get the visa). It would take until late August to process.

    2) wait for *Twinkle* to return to Japan, where she could register our marriage at our local ward office, and then send all the documents necessary for me to apply for a Spouse Visa. This two can take up to two months.

    And there was me thinking that it was going to be easy! I should have known better - this is Japanese immigration after all!

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    The shouting lady

    I spent much of today in the library, hammering my dissertation into shape. We're getting there. All but the conclusion written.

    This week, the weather has been just beautiful. Real warm sunny days, no need for jumpers or jackets. This brings me such enormous pleasure. It's been a very long winter, and I was getting to be truly tired of cold mornings.

    Pondersa Park on a Sunday at 7am is a beautiful place to be. Arriving there this morning I was struck by the peace. Here I was in the centre of Sheffield, but close my eyes and I could easily have been deep in a Siberian forest. All I could hear was birdsong (and beautiful birdsong at that). I stood there for a while and soaked it up - country bumpkin that I am it was like having my batteries recharged.

    Just as I was about to fall into a trance, I was suddenly dragged back into reality by the sound of shouting. I opened my eyes. At the other side of the field I could make out a woman in bright white trousers and a black top. She was walking briskly towards me. Shouting. At first I couldn't catch what she was saying, then I realised that there was a good reason for that - she was shouting in Chinese. She continued to shout in Chinese as she crossed the field heading in my direction ...then walked straight past me. She showed no acknowledgement of my being there. Just carried on looking straight ahead, shouting.

    She seemed quite happy in her shouting though.

    I got a little upset with *Twinkle* this afternoon. I'm not sure where it came from. She hadn't said anything that might have provoked me. I think it came about as a result of pressure that's been building up, anxiety over our post-wedding plans, or more precisely, the lack of plans. With finances extremely tight and my being unable to work immidiately following my return to Japan (it will take a little while to exchange the tourist visa I'll be flying on for a spouse visa), I've been wondering whether I shouldn't stay in the UK for a little while after our wedding in order that I can save some money. But that doesn't really seem right. It goes against the spirit of a new marriage.

    Thinking on our brief email conversation, I realised that the time had come to make a decision. I'd been waiting for some kind of sign, and this was it.

    I called the magic number, and 20 minutes later has a small loan arranged, to be paid back once I start work. This means that I can fly the same day as *Twinkle* - Sunday July 27th 2008, and thus I should be able to start work sometime in late August / early September. I'll call the embassy in the morning to check the details.
    I am extremely grateful to the people who are helping me out here, thank you.

    Tomorrow sees the start of my penultimate week of classes. The end isn't in sight yet though. Lots to do between now and my final exam. (All this endingness has had me looking back at beginnings. I can't believe I was in women's clothing only a month after my arrival in Sheffield).


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    Saturday, May 10, 2008

    The importance of Kite Flying

    With the sun rising so early, and mornings so peaceful, I've been trying to get back into the early-to-bed-early-to-rise routine. It takes a few days. I have my phone set to wake me every morning at 6am: I get out of bed, turn it off, and then take a moment to judge how tired I am. If I feel that my body really does need more sleep, I'll reset the second alarm for an hour later. If I'm just sleepy but my body feels like it's had a thorough rest, I'll go back to bed and doze until the next alarm 10 minutes later. Then I'll get up and immediately dress to go for a jog.

    On my way back from the park this morning (I managed to avoid doing press-ups in a puddle of wee today, having realised that the white patches on the soft tarmac around the playground were not just white due to some natural discolouration process) I listened to Episode 20 of the Radiant Vista (photography) podcast, recently introduced to me by my fellow digital photography loving coursemate Jason. In this episode, Craig talks about how important it is for artists (and anyone really) to take time out to play, to do something completely non-productive, in order that we can spend time with our right brain and let creativity blossom.

    He describes a time on a recent workshop where they'd gone out to death valley to take some photos of the moonrise, when a couple of group members pulled out some kite. Apparently they took with them wherever they went, and before any photo shoot, they'd fly them.

    Like Craig, I too love kite flying. As a child at the Hereford Waldorf School, we had an annual kite-flying day, when the whole school would head up to Garway Hill, a few miles south west of Much Dewchurch. From that huge bracken-covered molehill you could look out across our valley to the east (where our house appeared as a little white dot a few miles away), and to the west, across the river Monnow into Wales, with the Black Mountains on the horizon. I remember a couple of people had these amazing stunt kites, they were called Peter Pans or something like that. Mine was a bit simpler: a tiny little frame-less bundle of white and pink nylon that would fly in the slightest breeze. I was very fond of that kite.

    The last time I saw a kite being flown was when I was waiting in the queue for the bus that would take me from Beijing to the Great Wall (August 2007), and there were these guys flying the most lifelike birds of prey kites that you've ever seen, so high up you could scarcely believe they were on strings.

    The manner in which they gracefully crossed the sky, slowly turning at the end of a long arc, or circling as if having spotted some prey far below... it had me mesmerised.

    The podcast reminded how important it is to take time out on a regular basis to do something FUN. An activity such as kite-flying that sees my mind freed of earthly worries, filled with childish wonder. I don't do that as often as I might having tied myself to this productivity ideal, but it got me thinking that actually, if I did take just a couple of hours out each week to do that sort of thing the positive influence would vastly outweigh any 'loss' incurred by not being able to be productive for a couple of hours.

    And in actual fact, I 'waste' so much time procrastinating online that I could simply decide to take that time and use it as my 'free time'.

    Anyway, I have one final weekend of essay writing ahead of me now. My dissertation is due in on Friday, so I really must get it finished by Sunday in order that it can proof-read and all.

    See you in the library.

    Thursday, May 08, 2008

    Summer Fitness Campaign launches

    Inspired by my friend Tom who at the weekend finished an impressive 11th in a charity Runathon around the Imperial Palace (the grounds of, not the emperor's corridors that it), I've restarted my morning exercise routine which had been sacrificed to 'bad weather' 'tiredness' 'not enough time'.

    The sun is warm and happy at 6.30am, and the park deserted. I've started listening to music instead of audiobooks / podcasts when running, which really helps my stamina ("won't let myself stop until the end of this song!") (thanks again to Tom).

    Fitness is not just something that other people enjoy. I can experience it too :-)

    oh cripes I left my porridge on, gotta dash

    Beware the Jubjub bird

    Seven pretty strong earthquakes 100 miles from Tokyo today. I tend to worry when that happens. makes me wonder if *twinkle* is OK, as her parents' house is pretty old. If she's OK, it's likely my other friends are too (and she's fine, texted me news updates as they struck!) (although of course if it was a really big one, not like the '4' it was in Tokyo today, then I'd make sure I contacted all of my friends too [don't want them feeling unloved]).

    I took a trip back in time tonight, by participating in the university's Mature Student's Open Evening. Sitting there listening to the finance chap explaining about FundaFinder, student support talking about the mature student's committee - wow, it was like 2004 all over again.

    And the questions, exactly the same questions I'd asked 4 years ago. Except this time I was one of the people at the front of the lecture theatre helping to reassure everyone.

    I find it interesting trying to read audiences. Initially, I was a bit concerned that they weren't having fun. I'd tried beforehand to amuse them when giving a tour of the IC, but they hadn't really responded. I think a lot of them were quite nervous: as one lady said to me afterwards, she felt like an impostor, that she shouldn't really be in a uni full of students. That reminded me of how I'd felt. For a moment I was able to forget that everything was familiar to me and see it as that big scary university that 'students' went to. After only 4 years I feel like a part of the brickwork.

    Anyhow, back in the auditorium it was my turn to introduce myself.

    What is it about public speaking that excites me? I don't know. I just love it. It's like a drug. I told them a couple of stories of some rather stupid things I did when I started uni - that got them laughing (at me, not with me).

    It's a shame I don't have anything interesting to say that I could turn into some kind of show :-p

    I got paid for tonight's efforts too, money that will go towards the wedding fund. Not only that, but I was able to bring two huge left-over platters of dips, wraps and desserts home from the new and improved uni catering service. Should stop me buying chocolate for a while.

    Oh, and this morning I got paid for writing a short article about my uni experiences for a newsletter, perhaps the first time I've ever been paid to write anything (outside of CILASS). It felt good.

    I had a consultation with a CV expert this mornin', armed with a document that hasn't been updated in 12 years. Sure, it's had stuff added to it, but no change in format. I was surprised by how much CV standards have changed - it seems these days it's ok to do away with a work timeline, and instead use wig wiggy stylee web two point woah woah wigness to portray your experiences. I shall endeavour to make it as exciting as possible. I was also thinking, perhaps I could record a mini-self intro and post it to YouTube - that might make an impression upon employers ("bloody hell, he really is as much of an idiot as suggested by his personal statement"). I'd just have to be careful that I didn't show my profile, or I would instantly be cast aside for having an oversize nose.

    Tomorrow then is Thursday. This means two classes, the first of which is a newspaper class, hosted by Hugo (he who has a Facebook group devoted to him, titled "I have a crush on Hugo Dobson". Incidentally, I'm not a member, although as it will probably be him marking my dissertation I might have to start a new group called "Buy this book or this book or this book or this book or this book or this book or this book coz they're great".

    Ok, enough jabberwocky. Best get on with dealing with this frumious Bandersnatch.

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    Tuesday, May 06, 2008

    Spring, Surveillance and coaching course call one

    It's been a great day today. First off, it was the beginning of Warm Spring. You could feel it brewing over the weekend with the muggy rain. It's been an astonishing 72 hours, with a complete transformation of the trees in the churchyard opposite my house - just like that! Like a switch being flicked! This really makes me happy. 

    After a late start following a late night studying I had a couple of classes in which I did pretty appallingly, due to not putting enough work in recently. It's ok though, I know what I need to do, and I'll do it, and everything will turn out great.

    I'm about 10,000 words into my 7000 word dissertation. Actually enjoying writing that now! I think about half of what I write will end up as appendixes. Only two chapters to go.

    Tonight I popped over to the university drama studio to take some publicity shots for a new play being performed by Theatre Two Point Oh, Surveillance (a CILASS funded project). It's being produced (directed? What's the difference?!) by a fellow CILASS Student Ambassador (Tom), and stars Laura whose photo I posted a few days back with that great smile of hers (and again, below, without the smile). What an amazing thing they are doing... talk about team building. After the performance I lurked backstage to edit the photos, a process that took about 45 minutes. It was fascinating, as whilst I clicked away in Lightroom I couldn't help but listen to the stage intercom, thus overhearing the team meeting. It reminded me of a fly-on-the-wall documentary, following the fortunes of a group of dedicated individuals who come together to do something incredible. There's drama and tension along the way, but the ultimate result is a great show and a wealth of character-building  experience.

    Once home tonight I attended my first ever group coaching session, as run by TSI, the coaching company that I mumbled about a few weeks back (It took the form of a small group conference call). It was good. Obviously, I'm not going to (and never will) divulge any personal information about my coursemates, but just to say it's a very diverse group with some incredible people who have gone through very tough times, but are determined to change their lives for the better. It's a really positive environment, and the timing is just perfect. The coming weeks will see huge changes for me, with several important decisions needed. Having this resource to call upon will help a lot.

    I'll keep you posted on how it goes for me once we get started properly next week.

    I'd like to thank those of you who have contacted me with post-grad ideas. You've been tremendously helpful. Every day has seen me feeling increasingly grateful that I was not given the job I wanted. I'm not saying that that job (as CIR on the JET scheme) would not have been  a good thing - such a position offers incredible opportunities and I believe I would have been a fool to say no had I been accepted - but thinking about who I really am, and where my heart lies, well, it just doesn't fit.   

    It's scary though - I'm really feeling challenged to think hard about where my passions lie, and being dared to invest in turning them into a tangible opportunity. I'm looking at taking a part-time position, enabling me to pay the rent whilst devoting a significant amount of time in starting my own business, and supporting *Twinkle* in hers. 

    We'll see. The domain name is registered at least! 

    Best get to bed anyway. Long day of writing tomorrow. I need to get this dissertation finished asap as I still have a tonne of stuff to conclude before my student status expires!


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    Sunday, May 04, 2008

    Björk postpones gig so I can write my dissertation


    A few moments ago I got an email from Björk, saying that she's decided to postpone tonight's gig at Sheffield City Hall.

    That's a right shame, I was just starting to get really excited what with it only being 3 hours away. I popped down to the venue to make sure it wasn't someone impersonating Bjork that had sent the email, but no, all the gear was being packed back into the trucks (it was a LOT of gear).

    As for why the concert has been postponed, it seems that someone had told her about how I was struggling with my dissertation, and that whilst I really wanted to see her, it would actually be in my best interests if I went to the library.

    It's that kind of thoughtfulness that makes Björk Björk.

    I've emailed her back and told her that I'll finish my dissertation as soon as possible, so she can come back and perform for us.

    Saturday, May 03, 2008

    IBL Staff-Student Symposium

    Full day of work today, from 8.30am to 4.30pm. I say 'work', but it was more like hanging out with friends. CILASS friends.

    Today was the 2nd CILASS Inquiry Based Learning Staff-Student Symposium. Some people may remember me talking about giving a presentation via Skype from Tokyo at last year's event - well, this time around I was able to eat the free lunch as well.

    I won't go into details here as I'll be blogging about it on the CILASS blog and will link to it. But I would like to share a few photos of the day.

    Student Ambassadors modelling sexy CILASS T-Shirts

    Got to the IC at 8.30am to blow up helium balloons with Barbara - that was FUN!

    Laura, student ambassador co-ordinator and all-round wonderwoman was also on the scene to wake us with that smile of hers

    Next, I moved to my station in CILASS 3, armed with Macbook and a VAIO to co-ordinate live blogging (limited success, I wasn't forthright enough) and the uploading of photos taken at the event - the idea was to see how quickly I could get photos from the symposium sessions onto flickr & tagged in order that they automatically display on all the screens in the place (its things like this that give me insane amounts of pleasure). Got about 250 photos up by the end of the day.

    It was whilst sorting out the tags and things that Barbara and I came up with a stunning idea, inspired by thinking of those tourist spots where you stick your head through the holes in the big wooden signboards and have your photo taken so it's your face with some famous person's body. Well take that concept, and cross it with Disneyland, and throw in some tools for Inquiry Based Learning, thus creating an 'IBL Land' - albeit a bit smaller (i.e. as small as the glass-walled CILASS 1, which is about 2 metres by 3 metres in size).

    Yes, this was a fantastic idea! We kitted out the room with an assortment of Sony VAIOs, Toshiba Tablet PCs, a white board and a big collection of impressive-looking books from the nearby shelves, all promoting the theme of Inquiry Based Learning.

    Then, we put a sign up outside: "Come and get your IBL Photo taken here today!"

    Students, "Doing IBL"

    At one point I was dared to ask the Pro-Vice Chancellor (who was visiting for prize-giving) to come and have his photo taken in our IBL land - I did - and got the shot (although not realising how silly I am he was a little bemused at first).

    Speaking of the Pro-Vice Chancellor and prize giving: I mentioned the other day that myself and my classmates had successfully nominated our tutor for a £2000 prize in recognition of all her amazing work in promoting IBL - today was the day that she was to accept the award. However, at the last minute, I realised that she wasn't there ...I gave her a call, and was told that she couldn't make it because she was in class - would I accept it on her behalf?

    Later on, I presented her with the big bunch of flowers and award certificate: no doubt receiving them from me was almost as exciting for her as receiving them from the Pro-Vice Chancellor!

    I'm so happy that she won. She really deserves it. In a way, I like to think of it as a thank you from all of us in our final year for all the work she's put in these last few years to teach us Japanese. (She's so modest though. When I took the flowers to her office it turned out that two of her closet colleagues didn't even know about it!).

    I'm comforted though in knowing that it isn't really the 'end' of any relationships. If I Look back over the past 12 years at the various places I've lived and the stages I've been through, all of those places and stages are still very much a part of my life, In this era of email, Skype & online social networks, it's not easy to lose contact. Classmates, CILASS colleagues, tutors & other friends - all these people won't suddenly dissapear from my life the moment I leave uni.

    In a way, with regards to my language teachers this could be thought of as just the beginning. As my language develops during my time in Japan, so I'll be more inclined to contact them. That was one thing I enjoyed towards the end of last year, 'calling home' to Sheffield from Tokyo several times to catch up on the latest departmental news.

    Ho hum.

    I have about 13 days to finish my dissertation. I'll spend much of this weekend offline writing that. If you've sent me an email recently, thank you, I'll be in touch. Have a bit of a backlog at the mo.

    night night xxx

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    Friday, May 02, 2008

    Japanese stage debut

    I've never been one for over-dramatisation...

    (an extract from a mini-drama staged in our Japanese speaking class today. Sorry about the poor camerawork. That's the problem when one is on the wrong side of the camera - unless one has a psychic link with the camera and tripod it's difficult to get it to zoom in etc.)

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    Thursday, May 01, 2008


    Today has been one of those days that has had the usual context removed. One of those days that exists outside of the routine and framework that I've built.

    Most days when I wake up I have a list of certain things I need to do. Each of these things usually comes with its own emotional context, which may be a construct of my unconscious relationship with the building that it's in, the people it involves, the physical actions I'll have to perform.

    Wednesdays tend to be weak in context in the first place, as I have no classes, no set routine. It's the day for odds and ends. Today's odds started with the notification from the embassy that I'd not been offered a position. I didn't have any prior experience to attach this news to, and so it's been kind of floating around all day (I visualise the news as being on a piece of cotton hanging down from the roof of a cave for some reason. I think the Japanese government is the cave).

    Then there was a mini-rehearsal for tomorrow's dramatic debut of the Alison Quartet, a new theatre group that has been established by a few of us from Japanese Studies for the purpose of presenting hard hitting messages in a moving, yet humorous way. U-Card holders can see us for free, we're performing in CILASS Collabratory one at about 1pm tomorrow. It will be videoed so extracts of our performance may appear on YouTube afterwards.

    This afternoon I've been to a couple of leaving 'gatherings' for two members of university staff who finish work today, and who will be very much missed by their respective departments, and by me.

    The first is Mark Morley, who just for the Google Record, is one of the most friendly, enthusiastic and funny members of staff at the University of Sheffield. It's Mark who's been the secret power behind the Student Ambassador Network's Tech Group, as well as the source of enormous amounts of good humour that permeates the entire department. He's the kind of person who you'd like to keep in your pocket (if he were pocket sized), so when you're feeling slightly down you could pull him out and ask him to say something . If he did that, you couldn't help but smile.

    The second gathering was held for Jenny, beloved SEAS secretary, who retires today. I recently wrote about the family feel at SEAS - and Jenny has been right at the centre of that family. In a way she's been a kind of surrogate mum for some of us who are a long way from home. She'll be missed.

    Seeing these staff retire / leave for other departments gives me a feeling of finality, like the final bit of this uni thing has begun with earnest. Tomorrow will reinforce that no doubt, as it's our final in-class assessment for Japanese language.

    I'm in the library now, looking out on Weston Park, which is currently undergoing a makeover. The workmen have gone home though, and the birds are a tweetering, beckoning me out.

    I think it's time for a breath of fresh air.